Essays (book reviews)
The Virtual Republic: Australia’s Culture Wars of the 1990s
This is a lightly revised version of the launch speech delivered at Brunswick Street Bookstore, Melbourne, 25 October 1997.
Reading McKenzie Wark’s book The Virtual Republic, I kept remembering three things. The first is a story told by Canadian experimental filmmaker Mike Hoolboom, as he stood before an audience in Melbourne in the early 1990s. He spoke of how, as an adult, he had been recently invited back to speak to the kids at his old school – to let them know what kind of freaks the educational system can actually manage to produce. He related being in the very same room that was once was so big to him, but now so tiny, where he found himself experiencing all sorts of weird sensations: waves of the humiliations, pains, shynesses he used to experience as a child. He had the strongest sensation that his body was remembering, and mapping itself (not without some difficulty) into this uncanny space, reorienting itself.
And then I remembered (second thing) the declaration of another filmmaker, the French-American Jean-Pierre Gorin, who proudly boasted that, rather than take to the road to make a road movie, he would prefer to plant his camera on the side of the curb, study the ants, see who shoots by, and make a film about all of that. Gorin’s sentiment echoes Gilles Deleuze’s paean to the motionless trip as a way of living and thinking: (1) doing things “in my own backyard in the place where I live”, but responding to and following what Gorin calls a “sense of slide at the surface of things”. (2)
And then I remembered (third thing) a comment by the Australian writer George Alexander, who once remarked: “To write personally, from your experiences, is not shutting yourself off from the world, but to gather the world to oneself: travel, defeats in love, changes”. (3)
I remembered all these things because McKenzie Wark is an essayist. The book starts with a beautiful image: driving in crowded, dangerous traffic, meanwhile getting drawn into certain songs on the radio – and feeling, in that moment, connected to the world, and responsible for the well-being of all those other drivers. It’s not an image of the super-highway as a place of grim alienation – like in Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero (1985), where people are “afraid to merge”. No, there is a certain kind of poignancy in McKenzie’s personal and political transport. She’s alone in the car like all of us, stuck with the radio and the road system like all of us, the kind of person (as candidly related) “not usually prone to emotional gestures” – but there she is anyhow, wanting in her own way to merge, to feel what others are feeling and to join in their conversations … even if it’s only through a song. Or a fragment of writing flying out somewhere into the public sphere.
Like Deleuze again, McKenzie could say: I speak from the depths of what I do not know – and that means they’re less a specialist than a scanner, someone trying to knit together the scraps of what many people are speaking, experiencing and feeling. McKenzie says that she tries to write as a friend – a friendly guide who knows no more than the reader does just where they’re going, or where they’ll end up.
The Virtual Republic is a book about what McKenzie calls the “public thing” – all kinds of public things. It comes in two parts: the first is a mapping of her self into the space and the history of Australian intellectual writing – a mapping that is sometimes as prickly and sometimes as wondrous as Hoolboom back in his old classroom. McKenzie stands where she is, records the traffic and looks into the historical ground stretching below and before her, all around: looking at all the ants of Australian writing and the holes they’ve made, big or small. Not just looking for the official, well-known histories of Australian writing, but the virtually secret, unknown ones, too – and that’s one of the most important aspects of The Virtual Republic.
The second part of the book takes on a number of media events or cases: the Helen Demidenko effect; political correctness; the Manning Clark controversy. In every case, McKenzie digs up a new and profoundly felt perspective on these already tired cases. Trying to think the unthinkable, whenever possible. As Michel Foucault once mused: “What I say is not necessarily what I think, but rather what might be thought”. (4)
I tend to think of McKenzie as the Oliver Stone of Australian cultural studies – and I had better hastily explain that comparison. I mean that McKenzie has a fine feeling for melodrama, gossip, fantasy and modern myth-making – as well as thrilling bad-taste speculation. Writing a kind of theoretical pulp fiction – but with the hard enamel, too, when that’s required. (5) Indeed, McKenzie is one of the very few people I can think of who would actually go back and read, closely and with an open mind, Manning Clark’s notorious 1960 book Meeting Soviet Man – and who can show me something there that I would never have expected to find.
But another reason I think of McKenzie in the light of Stone is that both of them merrily and seriously confront a reality that is already at least 50% media reality, a reality of images, sounds and stories from movies, TV, radio, and even a few highbrow novels. All these images, sounds and stories are deep parts of our shared, secret history, too – the constantly evolving show that we have to understand, or else. I also happen to figure in McKenzie’s “secret history of postmodernism” narrated here, but I get the happy sense that it matters as much to him that I had a cameo in a local feature movie about sexy university students, as the fact that I’ve written some reasonably weighty essays here and there.
There’s a tension, a pull in McKenzie’s work that I’ve always admired – since the mid 1980s days of cutting her teeth writing for such generally unsung literary sites as student newspapers, music rags and small-press, cultural-theory publications. There’s a pleasing and inspiring sense of a Utopia in McKenzie’s speculations – a Utopia centred, above all, on the imagination and its possibilities, and the necessity for imagination to be unlimited and outrageous. That’s one thing that our continuing public conversations will definitely need – so The Virtual Republic tells us. But there’s also a frank admission of bad and evil things in public life – the self-interest, the monstrosity, the envy and narcissism, all those dark and base things that can drive us to do whatever we do. We factor out those things, too, at our risk; and that’s McKenzie’s charge to both Pollyanna, better-world theorists on the left, and Cold Warrior “master thinkers” on the right.
Finally, McKenzie Wark, driving and scanning and telling a story about the world, reminds me of what Félix Guattari once said about the hardboiled American crime fiction novelists: “Look at the warmth of intimacy, of suspense, of subjectivity that you need to grab to stay warm, to sleep, to feel good, to feel sheltered; it’s really something. What are they using to create that? They produce a more than tolerable and comfortable subjectivity, warm, passionate, exciting, in this pile of metal, this heap of shit, this load of stupidities”. And he added: “Isn’t that really quite a feat?” (6)
1. Gilles Deleuze, “Letter to a Harsh Critic”, in Negotiations (Columbia University Press, 1990), pp. 5-12. I prefer the translation “motionless trip” to this edition’s weaker, rather New Age-y rendition, “inner journey” (p. 11). back
2. Jean-Pierre Fargier, “Ici et là-bas: entretien avec Jean-Pierre Gorin”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 388 (October 1986), translation mine. back
3. George Alexander, “Writing the Object”, Agenda, no. 2 (August 1988), special supplement (“The Present and Recent Past of Australian Art and Criticism”), pp. 20-21. back
4. Not sure, but I think this quotation (that I jotted down long ago) may come from an interview with Foucault in Telos, somewhere between 1976 and 1978 (the journal ran four interviews with him over this period). back
5. I’m alluding here to the final line of Vincent Ostria’s witty and not wildly positive review of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 485 (November 1994) – quoted from memory: “Like my dentist says, too much pulp and not enough enamel”! back
6. Charles J. Stivale, “Pragmatic/Machinic: A Discussion with Félix Guattari”, Pre/Text, Vol. 14 No. 3/4 (1995), p. 12. back
© Adrian Martin October 1997